Preview: Young Voters in the New Jersey and Virginia Statewide Elections
We’re less than two weeks out from statewide elections for governor and state legislature in New Jersey and Virginia. After two national election cycles (2018 and 2020) that featured historic or near record-breaking youth voter turnout, these contests may provide some important insights into the youth vote headed into next year’s midterm elections.
What can we expect from youth turnout in these elections in November? In this preview, we look at youth voter turnout in both states in recent elections, some of the demographic and electoral context, and other factors that may shape the youth vote in 2021.
Recent Youth Voter Turnout
In off-year statewide elections like the upcoming contests in New Jersey and Virginia, turnout among all voters—including youth—tends to be markedly lower than in midterms or presidential cycles. In 2017, we used data available immediately after the election to estimate that 34% of youth in Virginia and 18% in New Jersey cast ballots in that year’s gubernatorial election. Youth turnout in New Jersey has remained mostly flat across the past three off-year elections, while in Virginia that 34% represented an increase from 2009 (17%) and 2013 (26%).
The 2017 youth voter turnout rate in Virginia was seen as an indicator for growing youth engagement leading into the following year, when youth turnout nationally was the highest in a midterm election since the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18. In 2018, in both states, about one-third of eligible youth cast ballots—higher than the national youth turnout rate of 28%. Both New Jersey and Virginia had above average youth turnout again in 2020. In fact, New Jersey had the highest youth turnout in the nation (67%) and Virginia had the highest youth turnout (56%) among southern states.
Voting Laws and Policies
One reason for New Jersey’s high youth turnout in 2020 may have been the state’s election laws and election administration during the COVID-19 pandemic. The state, which had implemented Automatic Voter Registration in 2018, sent all registered voters mail-in ballots in 2020, which our research (and that of others) have found is associated with higher turnout. While ballots won’t be sent automatically for the 2021 election, the prior implementation of automatic registration and last year’s historic voter turnout mean that the voting rolls in New Jersey will contain more young voters, which could lead to higher participation
In Virginia, the voting laws have seen a massive transformation since the last gubernatorial election in 2017. The following year, the legislature passed early voting, automatic voter registration, and repealed a photo ID requirement. Additional provisions to make voting by mail easier were also passed and implemented, and this year the state also passed the Virginia Voting Rights Act which seeks to mitigate other potential sources of discrimination in electoral practices that could lower the participation of people of color and other historically marginalized groups. Several provisions in that Act seek to address barriers to voting that young people may face due to their higher rates of mobility, and allow them to more easily and safely register and vote in this November’s election.
Both New Jersey and Virginia are racially diverse states which can have an impact on both voter turnout and vote choice. In Virginia, 22% of eligible young voters are Black; in New Jersey, Latinos are 19% of eligible young voters, Black youth are 17%, and there are five congressional districts in which people of color make up the majority of the electorate. Even with some facilitative election policies in place, youth of color can face barriers to voting, so engaging youth of color in these elections will be key to maximizing turnout.
In addition, 25% of Virginia’s population is classified as living in a rural area. Our research has underscored the challenges to reaching and engaging rural youth; in 2020 youth turnout was highest in the suburban and exurban counties around Washington D.C. and the Richmond corridor and lower in the more rural parts of the state. The extent to which those turnout differences by urbanicity manifest this November will be another dynamic to watch.
The upcoming elections in New Jersey and Virginia will also be among the first in the nation to take place with college campuses back in full swing after many switched to remote learning due to the pandemic in 2020. Potentially, that means increased voter engagement efforts that specifically target young people. In both states, there are a number of congressional districts that have a high share of college students. In New Jersey, districts NJ-06, NJ-11, and NJ-12 contain large universities, including Princeton and Rutgers. In Virginia, districts VA-05, VA-06, and VA-09 include the University of Virginia, James Madison University, and Virginia Tech. However, neither state has same-day registration, meaning that all college students who want to vote only had a short time between arriving on campus and the registration deadline of October 12 in both states.
Our analyses of the 2020 election highlighted that, in several states, young voters—especially youth of color—played a decisive role in election results. Our Youth Electoral Significance Index (YESI), which before each election highlights the states and districts where youth have the are most likely to influence results, quantified the youth vote potential in New Jersey and Virginia. In 2020 we ranked two congressional districts in each state (VA-2, VA-7, NJ-3, and NJ-7) in our top 50 House races where young people could have an especially high impact on the result. That potential remains in 2021, both at the state legislative level and, especially, the gubernatorial contest in Virginia, which polls at the time of writing project will be a close contest decided by less than 5 percentage points.